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A Security Breakdown in Northern Syria Plays into the Regime’s Strategy

Growing discontent with both the Islamist and secular opposition will make more and more people turn back to the regime for security and services.

Across opposition-held areas in northern Syria, chaos is spreading. Killings, kidnappings and armed robbery are becoming more widespread, with both jihadists and the secular opposition facing a security breakdown in areas under their control. Ordinary people in these areas are increasingly worried, and have targeted their discontent at these rebels groups. The winner in the battle for influence is the regime, along with its ally, Russia. The loser continues to be the Syrian citizen.

Amidst this security breakdown, various opposition factions are attempting to use the disorder to sow distrust of one another. Notably, rivals of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have attacked the group in the media for allowing disorder to spread in its areas. These rebel groups, who have been forced out of areas in the past by the dominance of HTS among opposition forces, are hoping that collective discontent with the group will turn into something resembling an uprising against the jihadists, especially after the recent takeover by HTS of areas previously controlled by other rebel groups.

The Syrian public has generally been lukewarm towards the projects of secularist and civil groups, but the jihadists’ inability to administer their areas has the potential to breathe life back into some of these projects. For example, the response to the assassination of civil activist Raed al-Fares at the hands of groups believed to be jihadists was stronger than anticipated. It came despite the powerful religious propaganda of the jihadists, who view civil advocates as rogue infidels.

However, most moderate groups backed by Turkey have also seen a security breakdown in their areas, and an inability to administer these areas institutionally. In these cases, instead of providing a fillip for the moderate opposition, the biggest beneficiary has been the Syrian regime.

The regime has been working through its intelligence agencies to sow chaos in the areas outside its control. Through the security breakdown, it hopes to prove to Syrian society, much of which rebelled against it, that the groups representing the revolution—whether Islamist or secular—are nothing but gangs working as mercenaries, unable to provide people with security and lacking the ‘spirit of the state’.

What they have claimed has actually come to pass, in the form of the chaos that has weighed on ordinary people who have suffered displacement and poverty in addition to their fears around this security collapse. Thus the regime has provided indirect evidence to the local community that it should trust what it says, and that its credibility lies in what is happening now.

With the opposition’s security breakdown, the regime wants to win international support, on the basis that the regime is ultimately a state that faces failing rival groups. Despite the international support for these groups, they have failed to confront the jihadists and failed to create an administrative mentality. The Syrian regime has exploited this chaos to increase social discontent. Indeed, many people have lost their preference for the opposition over the regime, and thereby the regime has achieved something—winning communities out of necessity, not out of choice.

What the regime wants most is for this security breakdown to contribute to its battle against the rebel groups in Idlib. Through the rivalry of the factions, the many assassinations and the state of chaos, the regime can keep Idlib burning on a low flame, and prepare it socially and even militarily to come under its control again.

The state of chaos has led many international organizations offering aid to curb their work or to stop it entirely because of the kidnapping of many of their employees. Because of the chaos, communities have started to lose the medical and educational staff who had helped reduce their suffering. This is paving the way for people to look to the regime.

This is a dangerous strategy though. The chaos in northern Syria is creating a fertile environment for ISIS to reorganize out of the failing rebel groups, especially HTS. This is likewise true for the Kurdish parties, who are exploiting this situation to settle scores with Turkey’s allies who control Kurdish areas.

The regime can likely withstand these challenges. But it means further suffering for ordinary Syrians.